Grasslands and wooded areas surrounded the old capital of Kyoto for centuries, making the perfect hunting grounds for feeding the wealthy citizens; birds of all sorts from the large colourful pheasants and statuesque pigeons down to small songbirds were trapped by the locals before being taken to market or grilled as yakitori. These days the term yakitori is normally used in relation to chicken, but the word literally means ‘grilled bird’, so it’s no surprise that different regions have their specialities featuring other fowl. To the restaurants around the sacred town of Fushimi, yakitori is all about two birds, sparrows eaten whole including their bones and crunchy beaks, and the meatier and more westerner-friendly quails. After a visit to the most well-known Inari shrine complex in the country- the Fushimi Inari Taisha- it’s almost impossible to leave the area without smelling the charcoal smoke and appetizing aroma of scorched meat wafting from the restaurants selling yakitori quail.
Eating yakitori like this is a primal meal, huddled around a dimly lit restaurant, breathing in the smoke and tearing into the grilled meat. A slightly sweet soy glaze enhanced with the essence of all the birds cooked before yours clings lightly to your lips as you devour the perfectly cooked bird, feeling more like the fox totem of Inari happily munching on a little bird in a shaded grove, than the person you were when you sat down at the bench table. To drink with the delicate flesh of the quails? Beer obviously, but what else to eat? Chicken wouldn’t be appreciated next to the delicate birds, tsukune would feel almost too processed, only one other yakitori favourite would sit harmoniously with the quails and that’s Uzura no tamago, bacon wrapped quail eggs. The ultimate pairing of parent and child found in many Japanese dishes such as oyakodon, the creamy eggs and salty charred pancetta add delicious little bursts of richness between mouthfuls of meat, a squeeze of sharp kabosu juice and a peppery sprinkle of ground sanshō balances all the elements to perfection.
- Raw bones and skin from a whole chicken carcass, or from 5 thighs (adding a couple of wings or a whole chopped up thigh is a nice extra to give more flavour)
- 200ml soy sauce
- 100ml mirin
- 100ml sake
- ground sanshō to season
- Place the bones and skin in a frying pan and cook over a medium heat until they start to brown and release their fat. Scrape the brown deposits aside and reserve for later. Repeat this step a few times until you have about two tablespoons of sticky brown crispy chickeny bits (these are really the soul of your tare). Add a little water to the pan to loosen any more brown goodness.
- If you have a pressure cooker (ours is an Instant Pot, which doubles as a rice cooker- highly recommended) put the sake, soy, mirin, bones, chickeny bits and pan juices in and cook at high pressure for around 20 minutes. If you don’t have a pressure cooker, just add the ingredients to your frying pan and cook it out for approximately an hour with a lid on, stirring regularly.
- Strain through a sieve discarding your bones, then reduce until slightly thickened- you’re not after a thick syrupy glaze, just a gently clinging sauce that will run off your meat leaving a light coating.
- Taste your tare, it should be quite salty and savoury, but still complex with the sake flavours and the chicken identifiable too. Season with some sanshō and then allow to cool.
- 6 quails
- 12 quail eggs
- 80g pancetta
- tare from above recipe
- 2 kabosu or limes to serve
- ground sanshō to serve
- If you’re going to cook your yakitori the traditional way over charcoal, now is the time to light your barbeque or shichirin; if you’re cooking it in the oven then preheat your grill.
- Place a small pan of water on the hob and bring it to a boil. Gently add the quail eggs to the water and boil them for three minutes, stirring the pan constantly to help the yolks centre in the eggs. Drain the eggs and plunge them into cold water for five minutes before peeling them. Wrap each egg in a strip of pancetta and then thread them onto teppogushi, three eggs per skewer.
- Using either a large knife or a pair of kitchen shears, cut each quail in two along the backbone and breastbone. Depending on where you bought your quails, they may have some or all of their internal organs present- discard all of these except for the hearts which make an extra yakitori treat that people will fight over (the remaining offal can be added to the raw bones in the tare recipe if you wish). If you are lucky enough to have the hearts, thread them onto two skewers for easy grilling, they can be divided between diners once cooked.
- Brush a slick of tare over each of the quail halves and grill them for about seven minutes, turning them regularly and basting with more sauce every couple of minutes. The hearts will need grilling and basting for around three minutes, and the eggs for about the same but without the tare, just until the pancetta has crisped and scorched slightly.
- Brush each of the quail halves lightly with more tare before serving, then squeeze a little kabosu juice over the meat as you eat it, seasoning with a sprinkle of sanshō if you want some spice.
Serves 4 people.